Finding Meaning in Life

I am an early riser. Most mornings, I awake before the sun and I sit and sip my coffee or tea and listen to the sounds of nature. Right now, the morning is filled with bird song and the exchange of different melodies. I learned that 90% of wildlife, including some of the Audubon population, mate for life; however, the majority of songbirds’ only mate for a season.

With this month’s focus, I ponder the meaning of life. It appears that the wildlife’s search for meaning only includes food, water, shelter, and safety; the daily efforts of survival. At least it looks that way from my window (except when you catch a baby fox that wondered into the trap destined for the destructive groundhog; a game of catch and release).

I digress for a moment and then joyful singing becomes the focus again. I always thought joyful music came from the birds until one day, when I heard different sounds – in particular, a robin. I was surprised at the change in the melody and then noticed a disruption of the nest and the loss of their eggs and young. Researching the possibilities of grief among wildlife, I learned that birds have legitimate cries of sadness.

Human loss and the sounds of sadness are profound as well. Grief, the normal and natural reaction to loss – any loss – is different for everyone. While mourning is the process that one goes through in adapting to the loss, bereavement is the period that defines the loss to which the person is trying to adapt.

Grief is experienced emotionally, cognitively, physically, spiritually, socially, economically, and behaviorally. While these experiences are not inclusive, it can affect every part of us. The deepest of these is spiritual. At least, that has been my experience, along with most of those I have provided support for. The loss of purpose and meaning in life can rock us to the very core of our existence.

At Hope Grows, we talk a lot about loss, and not just loss from death. Loss is painful. The first night of the graduate grief class I teach involves naming and listing everything that represents a loss. As students engage, the loss of a job, a relationship, a car, a passing grade, the ability to walk, and freedom, to name a few, begin to fill the chalkboard. Soon, an exchange regarding the loss from the death of someone is shared. Discussion evolves to the ability to pivot in difficult situations.

Last month, we shared an article about pivoting and if we focus on what matters most and align our actions with our values, a more meaningful and fulfilling life is the result. Does this really apply though, when struggling through loss? And then, what happens when someone loses their way? Finding and having meaning in life is imperative to good overall well-being, so we are told. It is also at the core of spiritual health.

I, for one, believe that society is in a period of mourning, one of chronic pain that sees no end. The news portrays a society that appears to be challenged from a loss of self, purpose, and identity; spirituality seems to be missing. As mental health needs rise, the cries of sadness seem to go unheard. Mental health needs are at record highs. Young teenagers are flocking to the ER hospitals for depression and anxiety, people are afraid for their safety, the older population struggle with moving from the home they loved, family caregivers are stressed with increased demands, and thirty somethings are struggling to find their way in the job market.

The chronic pain goes on and on, but then, just like in nature, the sounds of sadness can change. How do we help society change the sound of its cries? When one’s soul goes off-center, the antidote is compassion and kindness. Human spiritually evokes existential questions about suffering and meaning, and any validation can help nourish a tired and weary soul, providing a sense of comfort and connection.

I have been in chronic pain (loss) most of my life, physically and spiritually. I have a degenerative spine, arthritis and stenosis, Chronic Fatigue, Lyme’s disease, and several other chronic viruses that go in and out of remission. I’m not sure how long I have had these viruses, since most of adult life doctors always pushed the symptoms aside by calling them “acute” and that it was “all in my head.” It wasn’t until I found a wonderful Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine who became the compassionate and kind soul, validating my symptoms and applying the correct testing to locate the problems.

My apologies, I digress again, but my point is that I had empathy, understanding, and encouragement of practical support. I was then able to explore the deepness of the pain and implement self-care practices that worked. Keep in mind, whatever the loss, it requires a holistic approach that addresses the symptoms, the emotions, and the spiritual needs.

One way to support someone in pain, whether it be individual loss or the societal loss that I was referring, is community. We need to come together and spread kindness. Just like the child blowing the seeds of the spent dandelion into the wind, new growth can happen.

Other ways to help someone in chronic pain, whether it is physical, emotional, or spiritual:

  • Empathy and understanding
  • Encouraging self-care practices
  • Providing practical support
  • Encouraging connection and support
  • Promoting spiritual exploration.

Check out our simple suggestions in this week’s “Think Caregiver” email for further tips on this topic.

In summary, helping someone with chronic pain involves addressing their physical symptoms, emotional well-being, and spiritual needs with empathy, compassion, and practical support. By attending to the person’s holistic needs, you can contribute to their healing journey and support their overall well-being, including – and most importantly – the health of their soul. Keep in mind, a dose of nature can be helpful too!

Written by Lisa Story, MSCP, LPC, CT
Hope Grows Founder & Clinical Director

The Ability to Pivot

The ability to pivot in tough situations is a hallmark of resilience and is worth focusing on this month as winter changes to spring. Blossoms are plenty this time of year as the trees, bushes, spring bulbs, and perennials begin to erupt with beauty. However, as the weather doesn’t know how to make up its mind from cold to warm, and then cold again, the ability to pivot becomes the nature of the game (no pun intended).

For me, pivoting from winter to spring is always difficult. While I love the new blossoms, I thrive in the winter with “internal regrouping,” as I call it. The snow and cold of winter contribute to my deep, inward thinking and reflection. However, with the past couple of winters not being very cold and snowy, I feel like I have not had the break my soul needs.

None the less, as I reflect about this topic of pivoting, my birth order comes to mind. Being the youngest of six children, I believe I had an inner strength that was different than those around me. Was it my place in birth order, being one of 46 first cousins or having nieces that were closer in age to me than their parents, who were my siblings? Or did it have something to do with the fact that I was being raised by the village, not just my parents? Not sure of the reason, but my ability to pivot I believe is deeply connected to my inner spirit. The ability to draw upon my inner strength creates a resiliency that helps to adjust my mindset to manage effectively and put in place coping skills. 

Throughout evolution, organisms have developed various adaptation mechanisms to survive in changing environments. These mechanisms include physiological, behavioral, and psychological traits that allow organisms to adjust to new conditions. Humans, as a part of these organisms, inherit this adaptability, which contributes to their ability to pivot in tough situations.

The ability to pivot refers to the capacity to bounce back from adversity, challenges, or difficult circumstances, and what a better essential oil choice this month than the arborvitae. The majestic and strengthening properties of this tree are not only grounding, the tree often lives for over 800 years – Arborvitae means “Tree of Life”. The emotional properties of this essential oil mean Divine Grace. Engaging with this oil can help with relaxation, breathing deeply and trusting in the flow of life. Perhaps I should use this oil as I transition during this time of year.  

All and all though, it takes resilience to be able to pivot. While the arborvitae is resilient, humans have to implement strategies. One strategy is to remember and recognize the times where you have successfully pivoted in tough situations. When we remember success, we can then continue to promote resilience as a valuable skill that can be cultivated and strengthened over time.

Staying strong, holistically, is important too. I will admit though, the older I get, the harder it is to stay strong. Some days it feels like it takes twice the effort to do certain things and my resilience and ability to pivot is affected. I reflect at what is going on in my life; an overloaded schedule, not cultivating the earth, and not taking enough time to “stop and smell the roses.”

Whatever the reason, cultivating resilience, adopting a positive mindset, embracing adaptability, nurturing emotional well-being, and finding meaning and purpose can all contribute positively. Out of all the suggestions, I believe that finding meaning and purpose is at the top of the list for being able to continue to pivot. A purpose has to be in place so that you want to get out of bed in the morning, and a strong spirit can help with that.

I would be careless if I didn’t comment on the plant choice for the month: the bleeding heart. This resilient early spring-rising plant is full of resilience and strength. Its symbolism can help when we are being too sensitive or we emotionally react to the world around us. Its unique beauty can help draw upon our values and beliefs to navigate the challenges one may be facing.

All and all, focus on what matters most and align your actions with your values. You can then pivot towards a more meaningful and fulfilling life, even in the presence of adversity. A good take away is that nature can serve as a source of inspiration, wisdom, and resilience. I have often said, “nature doesn’t ask of anything from me, it is one place that I am able to let go of control.” And when you let go of control, nature will guide you to observe and learn, and to develop the adaptive skills necessary to navigate challenges and thrive in an ever-changing environment.

Written by Lisa Story, MSCP, LPC, CT
Hope Grows Founder & Clinical Director

Gifts of the Spring Equinox

Ever had to begin again? Start anew? It’s a lot of hard work, isn’t it? Leaving the past behind. But it’s a time effervescent with possibility. A newness to be wholly trusted.

For thousands of years, the spring equinox has come bearing gifts of renewal, rebirth, and reawakening to us and the emerging landscape. The word “equinox” actually means “equal night” in Latin. It’s one of only two days out of the whole year when the earth’s 23.5 degree axis is not tilting toward or away from the sun. The sun shines completely perpendicular to the equator, at a right angle. Dark and light are available for roughly the same amount of time, existing in a state of total balance, and the seasons shift. Light takes the lead.

The renewal of life is one of mother nature’s greatest teachers. Want to know how I found that out? Years ago, I found myself trying to put myself back together after a mental and physical trauma. I was lucky enough both to be recuperating over the spring months and to live in an area where I had access to a park. Before then, spring had just been a season, like all the rest. But that spring, I woke up. It felt like I was seeing the earth for the first time. That spring, I had to stop and examine every flower, tree, shoot, and bush. It felt like mother nature was leading me by the hand from one to another, revealing herself to me all at once, and the earth came alive. From my disabled state, I experienced something I never had before: the underlying magic of spring. I was changed, more connected to nature than ever before. It forged an unforgettable reverence and hope in my soul, leaving me with a deep appreciation for the gift life’s renewals really are, both inside and out.

Throughout history, the spring equinox has been heralded and celebrated worldwide. The Persian
calendar, still used by Iran and Afghanistan today, celebrates the “equinoctial new year,” marked by a 13-day festival, as the first day of the year. In India, the famous Holi festival, signifying the triumph of good over evil, where revelers cover one another with brightly colored powdered paint, is celebrated at the spring equinox. And Easter and Passover, two of the most widely celebrated spring religious holidays, are both determined by the timing of the spring equinox.

You bet it’s a time to celebrate! We don’t have to bow to the powers of winter anymore! Watching the
earth reclaim herself every year never gets old. She shifts us from turning inward, hunkering down in
place, “wintering,” to coming outside into a universe teaming with life, working the land, gathering and growing together. The snow melts and the ground softens, leading us, once again, to abide in a reciprocal relationship with the earth. What we sow, we reap.

Around Hope Grows, we make room for the new by starting seeds, pulling weeds, raking leaves, removing dead stalks, and integrating fresh compost into the soil. Come Memorial Day, we want to be ready to PLANT.

As spring draws us outside in the next few months, it’s a great time to create space for the gifts of
the equinox in our own spiritual landscape. What will you leave behind under the covers of winter?
What newness will you cultivate? What seeds are you going to sow, inside and out? It’s a great time to clean out anything that is no longer serving your highest good, and an even better time to choose something you’ve always wanted to do and start. Setting intentions during this time can be very powerful.

When the sun’s new light of spring dawns, what new thing is it going to nourish? Think of a seed
germinating, cracking its shell, breaking open, and let light take the lead.

Written by Jessica Giannotta, Hope Grows Horticulturist

Notes from the Garden: The Tree of Life

December Plant of the Month: Tree of Life

doTERRA Essential Oil of the Month: Clary Sage

If we surrendered to the earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees. – Rainer Maria Rilke

The Tree of Life has been a sacred symbol, revered across cultures and religions, for thousands of years. Almost every major civilization and faith over the ages has had some level of sacred regard for the trees. 

While researching this blog, I found Tree of Life symbolism throughout Egyptian, Celtic, Mayan, Native American, Buddhist, Hindu, African, Greek and Roman mythology, and folklore. In the Bible, the Tree of Life is planted centrally in the Garden of Eden, near the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In fact, the Hebrew phrase etz hachayim, meaning “Tree of Life,” has been used to refer directly to the Torah, Jewish sacred scripture. Proverbs 3:18 likens it to wisdom, saying one can derive happiness from holding onto her. 

The Tree of Life symbolizes healing, power, strength, and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Her roots extend downward, spreading their tendrils beneath the ground, and her branches reach up, interwoven, into the heavens. She occupies two worlds, symbolizing the harmonious connection between the divine and earthly realms. She is often encased in a surrounding circle, symbolizing the oneness and unity of all life. 

One of my personal favorite renderings is the Celtic Tree of Life. The Celts considered trees to be sacred repositories of memory, folklore, and the presence of spirit beings. Their Tree of Life symbol has its roots and branches intertwining and knotted together infinitely, with no beginning or end, symbolizing all of us inextricably connected within the Tree of Life’s protective stature. 

Wisdom is in the trees. Acting as both givers and sustainers of life, trees provide us with gifts of nurturance. From cradle to grave, we rely on them for our very breath, shelter, shade, medicine, music, healing, fire, and food. Whenever I have faced periods of struggle, or illness, I find solace among the trees. During a particularly difficult time years ago, it was the trees who taught me how powerful and restorative it can be to connect with nature. Walking among them day after day, their magnificent and healing spirits tended to me, making me feel safe, restoring my spirit, lifting me up to higher ground. It was within their loving embrace that I first felt the invisible connective tissue of the web of life all around me, cradling and connecting me to an intelligence far greater than mine. I was no longer a party of one; they connected me back to the infinite whole. They are my trees of life. I didn’t leave Pittsburgh much during that time, but looking back, I can see now I was on one of the most definitive journeys of my life. 

Journeys of adversity, healing, and wholeness ripen us, and often shake us to our core. They strip away what isn’t real and leave us clinging to what is. They make us human, and the most profound ones will reveal our humbling connection to all that is. I have been a care recipient, and I have a feeling I will be a caregiver before my life is over. What the trees have taught me is that even though these two souls walk hand in hand, experiencing two very different journeys, both are being held in the sacred boughs of a larger whole, to which they will forever belong. 

Written by Jessica Giannotta, Hope Grows Horticulturist

Tree of Life drawing by Emma Stair

Health & Nutrition with Chef Hanna: Trail Mix Cookies

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” – James Beard

There is debate as to how and when the Pittsburgh cookie table came to be, but there is no question that it’s a Pittsburgh tradition. Some say the tradition came about during the Great Depression. It’s said that wedding guests would bring their favorite cookie to the table to lessen the financial burden of the evening for the newlywed couple. In this sense, families and communities came together to support the couple as they embark on their new lives together.

Family and friends start planning cookie tables just about as soon as the wedding planning starts. Everyone seems to have their own specialty cookie that they’re sure to bring. Each step of a cookie table involves community – from planning, to preparing, storing, and finally displaying at the event. Folks start baking cookies months before the wedding, storing them in every inch of freezer space available before the big day. Even after the wedding, cookies are enjoyed and given away for weeks following the big day. Visits to Grandma usually involve a sendoff of a Ziploc bag of the cookie spread (Grandma being sure that you don’t go home empty-handed while also trying to reclaim an inch of freezer space). Platters and trays will be filled up with cookies at every get-together for months to come. It’s always a good reminder of who made what cookie and the love that went into preparing each and every one.

The first time I brought my Californian husband to a Pittsburgh wedding, he couldn’t wrap his head around not the one, but the two cookie tables that flanked the reception hall. The first dessert plate he grabbed had just a couple of cookies, followed by a second plate, and then a third. As wedding photos started to take longer than expected, he realized that the cookies on the opposite table held different options than the first and had to start the sampling process all over again. By the time dinner was served, he had enjoyed so many cookies he turned his head up at the steak tips, which was unheard of for my meat-loving fella. Later, when he proposed to me, the first question was if I would marry him, quickly followed by the question of which cookies would be on our cookie table.

Weddings are already a community event, but Pittsburghers add another layer of community with the love that comes along with preparing and presenting a cookie table. While working at a resort in California, I came across an order for a wedding that included the cake I would be preparing, as well as a note about the hundreds of cookies being shipped in that would need to be stored before the reception. I knew immediately that at least one of the families involved in the wedding was from Pittsburgh and had an instant connection to these folks who I hadn’t even met. Cookie tables are a great way to bring people together while creating a sense of community.

My favorite cookie is a gooey chocolate chip cookie, but being high in carbs, sugar, and fat, they aren’t necessarily the best cookie for you. Chocolate chip cookies are great as a decadent treat, but a more health-friendly cookie is my very own “Trail Cookie.” They are gluten-free, high in protein (thanks to peanut butter), and contain multiple fruits. These cookies are still considered a treat, but are a better balanced option. Enoy!

Hanna’s Trail Mix Cookies

  • ½ Cup Apple Sauce
  • 1 Cup Sugar
  • ½ Cup Peanut Butter
  • 2 Cups Oats
  • 1 Cup Coconut
  • ½ Cup Raisins or Craisins
  • 1 Tsp Cinnamon
  • ½ tsp Baking Soda
  • ½ Cup Chocolate Chips

Preheat oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Mix apple sauce, sugar, and peanut butter together, and then stir in the remaining ingredients. Scoop dough using a small cookie scoop (1 tablespoon scoop) or a tablespoon, and drop onto the prepared cookie sheet. Bake cookies for 11 to 12 minutes, just until set.

Written by Hanna McCollum, Iris Respite House Chef & Innkeeper

Notes from the Garden: Coffee & Connection

October Plant of the Month: Coffea arabica

doTERRA Essential Oil of the Month: Douglas Fir

On the global level of plant consumption and connection, coffee is an international mogul. It’s one of the top ten most traded commodities in the world, and it serves to connect. There are estimates of 125 million people employed by the coffee industry, either in growing, roasting, exporting, or retail. Chances are, the labor of many different hands, from many different lands, have gone into the next cup of coffee you enjoy.

We drink 2.6 billion cups of coffee worldwide every day. The rise of coffeehouse culture has put one on nearly every corner in major American metropolises and beyond, bringing in folks from the community not only to enjoy a hot cup of coffee made their way, but also to socialize, connect, and exchange information. It seems the coffee bean is bringing us all together.

The coffee bean is actually the seed of the coffee plant. It has sweet-smelling flowers and grows in a tropical weather band around the equator, called the “bean belt,” that spans 70 countries! The seed is found in the fruit, or red “coffee cherry.” When it’s picked, and before they’re roasted, the seeds are green and have a vegetable taste. After the cherries are harvested, the seeds are extracted through a pulping and fermentation process, then dried in the sun. This prepares them for roasting, a complex, alchemical drying process where the nuances of each coffee’s flavor profile are coaxed out at temps of 400 degrees.

Here, the seed is transformed into the bean we know and love. You don’t want just anyone roasting your coffee. This process is so crucial that seconds can make the difference between a perfectly roasted batch of coffee and one that’s considered ruined. Flavor palates like fruity, floral, robust, or chocolaty are all enhanced by roasting. You know that transporting scent of freshly ground coffee? Thank the roaster.

Coffee builds community, one cup at a time. You can always find it at Hope Grows, for every meeting, gathering, and support group. As humans, we are hardwired to connect, both with each other and the natural world. This is something never to be taken for granted, especially in any healing process.

One of the greatest lessons that Hope Grows has taught me is the value of human connection, and to never underestimate its power. In fact, one of Hope Grows’ signature essential oils is called “Abundantly Connected,” and for good reason. Connection moves people, while working to support and unify one another. So many connections run deeper than we can imagine, as there is so much the eye can’t see.

As you enjoy your next cup of coffee, ponder this: data scientist Riccardo Sabatini printed out the entire human genome and wheeled it onstage for his 2016 TED talk. All told, it takes up 262,000 densely printed pages. Of those 262,000 pages, only 500 of them, a mere .19%, comprise the number of pages of genetic code that contains what makes us different from one another. The other 261,500 pages, or 99.81%, of our genetic code is shared by all humans on the planet. Sometimes, connecting over a good cup of coffee may just help us find what’s been there all along.

Gives new meaning to the question: wanna get a cup of coffee?

Written by Jessica Giannotta, Hope Grows Horticulturist